Captain of my soul, but who is my God?

Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus features Nelson Mandela passing on the poem of the same name that steeled him against 27 years of incarceration to Francois Pienaar, captain of the World Cup winning South African rugby team.

The final two lines: ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’ echo through the movie emphasising that regardless of our circumstances we are still in control of how we respond, how we behave, how we think.

Invictus – William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It is unclear if this is strictly historical as other sources claim Mandela actually gave Pienaar a copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, The Man in the Arena. The speech is notable for the extended passage:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Eastwood lays a lengthy historical foundation for the film’s climax being South Africa’s unlikely World Cup win in 1995, a powerful moment of unity for a country seeking to move past decades of apartheid. For just a few moments, Eastwood descends into the schmaltz of Hollywood style sporting movies as he tries to build tension and excitement on the rugby field.

But such is the grandeur of Mandela’s life and vision that anoints the film that most patrons will easily overlook these moments and soak in the beauty of belief.

English poet Henley was unsure what God he thanked for his ‘unconquerable soul’, and perhaps Mandela shares this uncertainty. The only black footballer in the winning rugby team, Chester Williams, claimed not to think too much as it spoiled his rugby but seemed much more certain about his faith in God when called on to pray after the South African team’s great victory.


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